Updated: Nov 9, 2019
After the First act turning point, the second important turning point in feature film structure is The First Culmination or Midpoint. This point is as its name suggests, in the middle (55-60 minutes), dividing a feature film into two equally long parts, but they represent utterly different journeys for the hero. We can say that after the midpoint the hero is entering into a world that is so different from the previous one, that there is no turning back.
On the wheel it is the Ruler -->Innocent stage: The Hero’s addiction to the old world comes to a culmination. The hero is at the top of the mountain he was reaching for, but he is still not aware that this ‘mountain top’ is wrong or false; in other words, what he was aiming for is what he was wishing for, but not what he really needed in order to be happy. The hero still does not see the whole picture or real danger. Also, it can be a false defeat.
One way to look at the midpoint is that the hero’s (wrong) wish has been fulfilled; at least on some level he has gotten what he wants. We can also say that here, the Hero’s ego can claim the victory, while he is the furthest away from what he really needs in order to feel whole or satisfied. Hero can also experience the biggest defeat possible, it can look like the object of his desires is unreachable.
This point is the mirror opposite of the last (turning point) culmination/climax, where the whole truth is finally known. Why is it like that?
Because you want to tighten this thread of expectations we call suspense, as far as you can, so that later on, the emotional impact on the audience is going to be as big as possible.
Whatever in the plot 'drop down' should drop from high above, whatever flies should start to fly from down below.
Either way, you want to think of the midpoint as the resolution of the first half of the movie but at the same time, as the beginning of the whole other line of suspense in terms of what’s going to happen at the end.
One could also have a ‘wrong’ marriage occur at this point, so that he/she can marry the right person later on…(false victory). Also, if the hero wants for to be with someone, in this point, he can see this person with someone else - (this is a false defeat example).
This wrong kiss/wedding metaphor actually works better than you would think. It’s funny how in a lot of movies the midpoint is actually a literal kiss or sometimes a metaphorical one.
Why is this the case?
Because this point is not just the first culmination of the film, it is also the culmination of the second act that predominantly deals with the relationship or love story, also known as the B story in the feature film structure. The beginning of the second act is ‘Love introduced’ but the end is either the beginning of a relationship, or the false belief that the relationship is not possible, it depends what’s going to happen at the end.
Let’s now observe the midpoint in both films with happy endings and with tragic ones, in other words, when the hero gets what he wants at the end or when he doesn’t.
FILMS WITH TRAGIC ENDINGS ARE GOING TO HAVE FALSE VICTORY AT MIDPOINT:
In Sunset Boulevard (tragic ending) Joe comes back to Norma and finds her in despair after she tried to commit suicide. Even though he never wanted to be with her, and his heart longs for Betty, he decides to be with Norma. He kisses her and the director suggests it is the wrong wedding kiss. The real reason behind this kiss is Joe sees a real person, a person who is suffering. Also at this point he thinks that this is the only way for him. He even says: “She was the only person in Hollywood who actually gave me something.” So, with this kiss they enter into a relationship that is going to end tragically.
MIDPOINT. Joe: “Happy New Year Norma.” FALSE VICTORY (with a kiss)
CLIMAX. Norma kills Joe. DEFEAT
At the midpoint, the main character Georges confronts Majid, his opponent for the first time (at least he thinks this is who his opponent is). For a brief moment, he feels in control, as he thinks he has found the one who he was searching for. FALSE VICTORY
Someone is terrorizing Georges and his wife by sending them strange videotapes. Clues point to George’s childhood memories when he was against his parents' choice to adopt an Algerian orphan named Majid.
As soon as the videotapes start coming (which is the inciting incident), subconscious memories are triggered and George has a wish to find Majid and take revenge. He thinks he is the one who is sending the tapes and George believes that Majid ‘stole’ his childhood. The midpoint is: ‘a wrong wish is fulfilled’ because Majid is not the one George is looking for. Majid says he never ever had anything to do with the tapes, but George doesn’t believe him.
Climax: Majid takes his own life in front of Georges, this is actually the only way to take revenge. DEFEAT
FILMS WITH HAPPY ENDINGS ARE GOING TO HAVE FALSE DEFEAT OR FALSE VICTORY AT MIDPOINT:
Fish Tank (2009) Mia actually gets what she needs at the end (a young guy), but not what she wants (Connor).
At midpoint Mia watches her mother and Connor have sex.
(Connor sees her and actually he is even performing for her. This means that actually he wants her.)
Mia feels defeated, she is furious. She slams the door. FALSE DEFEAT (sex)
CLIMAX. Connor hits Mia in order to demonstrate that this relationship is over, and also to protect his family. (Her ego is maybe defeated, but this is a VICTORY, she is finally free)
The midpoint in The Searchers also comes from the B love story. Do you remember the scene in which Charlie McCorry brings Laurie a letter from Martin Pawley and then she reads it in front of everyone? In the letter, Martin explains how he got “married to a squaw.” Also, we actually see how instead of buying a blanket, he got himself a wrong wife. At the same time, it’s kind of clear that Laurie is not going to wait for him anymore, she is going to take McCorry now. So, we have two wrong marriages here while we are slowly introduced to Indian culture.
The letter is also used as an ellipse that divides the film into two parts – and giving the audience a feeling of a time that has passed after the search has started.
MIDPOINT: FALSE DEFEAT
I am choosing this one for the sake of having one comedy, so we can see the difference. There is no kiss at the midpoint, but for the first time Sugar sees Joe as a man, and while he is pretending to be Shell Oil Junior, she is falling for him. Here the climax is actually a kiss, but still, the mirror opposite position works.
MIDPOINT. Joe seduces Sugar by pretending he is someone else, someone who has money (Shell Oil Junior) so that he can impress her. FALSE VICTORY
CLIMAX. While Sugar is singing ‘I am through with love’ in despair, Joe finally forgets about pretending, he kisses her as Josephine – because he is in love too. VICTORY
In The Birds (1963) Melanie gets what she wants at the end, she is with Mitch and at the midpoint they have sex. Well, in Hitchcock’s movies we just see her the morning after in her nightdress, the one that she bought earlier in one of the Bodega bay shops. And after Mitch’s mother sees the dead farmer and reacts in horror (and we see through her eyes why she reacts this way), she can’t stand that Mitch and Melanie actually had sex under her roof.
MIDPOINT. The morning after, Mitch’s mother goes crazy after what she witnesses. So, even though this sex seems like a victory, it has a taste of FALSE DEFEAT.
CLIMAX. Melanie proves she is the new mother and a strong protector of this family. She wins Mitch’s heart forever. But even more important she wins his mother's heart. VICTORY.
* Sometimes I use specific plot details, but only for films that are an obligatory part of history of film classes, so for people who haven’t seen The Searchers, I would strongly suggest watching it.
Remember, no matter if your midpoint is a kiss or not, because in some genres it is not going to be – the most important thing is to understand this mirror correlation between the midpoint and the climax. Midpoint is always a point where the hero's wrong or false wish is fulfilled or not, and climax is always the point where the hero's true need is realized or not.
THAT'S WHY FILMS WITH TRAGIC ENDINGS ARE GOING TO HAVE FALSE VICTORY AT MIDPOINT, WHILE FILMS WITH HAPPY ENDINGS ARE GOING TO HAVE FALSE DEFEAT OR FALSE VICTORY AT MIDPOINT (depends on the genre).
If your film is about the collective guilt like Cache is, and the theme that is motivating your main character is revenge, use this theme to push your character into the wrong direction at the midpoint so that he can find his way in the climax, concluding this very theme.
The midpoint – climax plot line always explores the theme of the film in the widest range possible.
Let’s just shortly explain why exactly the Ruler -->Innocent stage on the wheel suggests what we just explained.
The Ruler is a decision maker, the achiever within us, the one that gets what he wants no matter what. He is the one who is always at the top of his game because he needs to feel in power in order to be safe. What he really understands well is structures and hierarchies, also the ones that societies are built upon. He was climbing up that ladder so he knows it well and respects it.
He also understands time. He knows how to be persistent, so that time works in his favor in the end. He just never gives up, and at the end, he succeeds. That’s why he can also reach for history and draw the conclusions from what has already happened.
People sometimes think that he is cold, but his ‘theme’ is security in the outside world and he is going to do what’s necessary to protect society structures he knows well.
It is the ego-ruling archetype that can forget about emotions or what the heart really desires in order to lead – and usually, people do need a leader. So, he sacrifices for the sake of others by doing what he knows best. Once on the throne, he realizes he is all alone. Especially if he uses his ruling qualities in relationships.
Translating all this into feature film structure we can conclude once again that at the midpoint, the hero needs to feel in control by choosing what’s old and outlived!
When you combine this archetype with the shadow Innocent archetype, what you get at the subconscious level is fear that manifests as: ‘No one really loves me, so I better take whatever I can, or I better rule and protect myself from those who don’t love me’… This shadow archetype is the part in us that is still not aware of the universal law that everything is connected by love.
As a result, we are lost. In search for connection, we are addicted to people or substances or ideas or religions… we are hiding behind someone else who rules upon us. That’s why I call this point 'False mountain, Fake rulership'… or you can also call it fake god.
Both these archetypes, Ruler and Innocent are tradition keepers and while they can protect what’s good in society, they can be stuck in outdated values. The Ruler knows how to build schools, banks, churches, families, marriages - I call them mountains, but while both those archetypes feel secure in the material world knowing what’s best for others, they can suffer without a real connection on an emotional or spiritual level.
That’s why the midpoint in the story is a lonely moment where the hero is unaware not only of his own needs, but also of the existence of the real mountain that is standing at the end of the wheel journey-
– but we’ll come to that.